Tag Archives: Guitar technique

Defeating the Scary Guitar Clown

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

If you are in my age range or better then you may remember IT. IT was a millennia-old creepy space alien featured in the 1986 Stephen King novel of the same name, and a TV miniseries in 1990. IT manifested itself to the neighborhood children in the form of a circus clown. IT would appear in a benevolent clown form and woo the neighborhood children with laughter and promises of balloons and parties, and then when he had their confidence would morph into a scary clown and steal them away to a creepy underground bunker.

In the novel and film the surviving neighborhood kids grew up and came home to band together and defeat IT once and for all … or so they thought. The fact is, in teaching guitar to beginners and up for some years now, I have found that IT is hanging around my studio. He pops up all over the place. For example, when providing feedback on technique refinements I often hear responses such as, “I’m trying, but IT (“my hand”) wants to do it this way,” or “IT wants to tense up when I try to move that fast,”, or “IT (the pick) shifts around when I try to hold IT this way.” “IT (my thumb) wants to hook ITself over the top of the neck.” “IT (my pinkie) wants to curl up into a popcorn shrimp when I make a fifth chord.”

Indeed. Creepy IT seems to be the number one barrier to progress for many students of guitar. This need not be so, because the fact is … there is no IT. There is only YOU. YOU are the Scary Guitar Clown. It is YOU who is permitting excess tension, allowing the fingers to fly and flop around chaotically, plowing the pick through the strings like a bulldozer, allowing mental focus to drift, and generally making the hands and fingers wrestle against the strings rather then dance with them.

If you like your IT you can keep IT! However, if you want maximum results in the shortest possible time then you will have to deal IT a crushing death blow sooner rather than later. The first step in conquering IT is to acknowledge that IT is YOU. If your fingers are doing anything at all other than totally relaxing, then YOU are doing it. Apart from direct physical manipulation by someone or something other than you, your fingers can not do anything except exactly what your brain tells them to do. Pinkies do not curl up into a tight ball on their own. Likewise, if you are locking up your wrist and clamping too firmly on the pick during rhythm strokes, it is YOU tightening up the forearm muscles that control the wrist. YOU are doing that, not IT! So take responsibility and avoid passing the blame to IT!

Now let us discuss for a minute why IT gets the blame for so much technique chaos. We come from the factory equipped with several levels of control over the muscular systems. Level 1 is the autopilot mode. The heart, for example, will continue to beat at the set tempo regardless of our consciousness of it or efforts to manipulate it through focused attention. Level 2 is the autopilot with manual override. The eyelids are a good example of this one. When we are awake they close and open without any conscious attention, and when we sleep they remain closed. However, we may at any time take full control of them, either blinking, holding open, or holding closed as we prefer, until we release them back into the control of the autopilot mode. Then we have the skeletal muscles on Level 3. They run mostly in manual mode with autopilot override for special circumstances, such as the knee jerk reaction when the leg responds to a strike to the knee joint.

Then we have the fingers. How do we label the control mode of the fingers? I think most entry level guitarists would say something like, “Manual mode until I try to play guitar, then Scary Guitar Clown mode,” by which they mean that it seems impossible to fully control the fingers when trying to manipulate them individually, when IT appears to take over. Is this really true? It is partially true and partially not true. The fingers run on a mix of all the above modes, but mostly on manual control. If you don’t think they have an autopilot override, try putting them on a hot stove burner and you will see how quick they go into autopilot override.

So how does this examination help us to defeat the Scary Clown Mode? We must understand four important things about the control of the fingers:

(1) The default control mode of the fingers is a hybrid of manual control of the fingers as a group, with autopilot control of the other fingers when trying to use one independently. To illustrate, put the tips of all four fingers downward facing on the edge of a table and then use the other hand to curl the pinky until the tip touches the palm. It is quite easy, with no strain on the knuckles, muscles, or skin. Now try to do that same test with your fingers free from outside constraints, using only the control offered by your mind. You will observe that the ring finger follows along with the pinky, no matter how hard you try to separate the two. Why does this happen? Mechanically the two are completely independent. It is the default programming of the brain making the ring finger follow the pinky. The default program is to use the fingers as a group. This is great for grasping things firmly, but it is totally contrary to what we need to do as guitarists. This is the deadly IT of which we speak, and the one we must overcome in order to develop a great command over guitar technique.


(2) In addition to the limited degree of manual independent control we have over the fingers by default, we can cultivate greater individual finger control through focused repetition of specific movements. This is why scale practice should always be near the top of your guitar practice priorities. Scale practice is not simply a tool to remember note placement. Among other things, if done correctly it is the most powerful technique improvement tool available. With enough practice we can not only cultivate finger independence, but we can actually reprogram the autopilot portion of our finger control so that it does new things in autopilot mode, such as play through scales accurately and efficiently. This is the secret of mastering guitar technique. It is important to note here that we are reprogramming the autopilot every time we practice, regardless of whether we are practicing great technique, good technique, or slop. This is why it is important to pay attention to the details while practicing scales!


(3) Regarding the pick hand, it is very important to understand that you have already spent many years cultivating an alternate autopilot program that takes over when you attempt to exercise fine control over the pick hand – writing. Writing is similar to picking, but not the same, so when you allow the writing autopilot to take over when you go to pick, you will have poor control over the pick.


(4) Ultimately, we DO in fact have a great degree of control over individual fingers, but we must consciously choose to exert this control in defiance of the default programs. For example, I often see a tightly curled pinky when making fifth chords (power chords), and I always advise that this creates unnecessary tension, which further causes unnecessary levels of finger pressure and undue difficulties in changing from one fretboard location to another. I then advise to manual override the pinky popcorn shrimp of death while making the fifth chords. It is always a struggle at first, but I have yet to observe a student who can not eventually cultivate a new habit of keeping all the fingers straight and relaxed while executing fifth chords. Likewise, the pick hand technique always starts out with a sort of stabbing motion coming from pushing the index finger and thumb out from the side of the hand which is planted on the bridge, and then curling it back in to make the pick stroke – just like writing. With enough focused effort the student can defeat the writing program and develop a new autopilot mode of efficiently picking from the wrist, with the fingers immobile and the base of the hand planted on the guitar or strings. (See my pick technique video for in depth analysis)


Don’t let IT ruin your technique. IT is a formidable enemy at first, but by consciously choosing to control your fingers until they do what you want, you can send IT packing and make beautiful music instead. Get to work, and don’t stop until you get the desired results!


Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.


Keys to Mastery: Attention to Detail

By Chad Crawford – Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

Don’t sweat the small stuff! So goes the old saying, and within its sphere this is a sage piece of advice. When playing guitar the ability to cruise past mistakes without getting derailed is critical. However, we need to keep in mind that playing guitar and practicing guitar are very different things. When practicing guitar we very much need to sweat the small stuff. Practice does not make perfect unless it is perfect practice! Repetition of slop guarantees playing slop. So when practicing we need to perform every detail of our technique as perfectly as possible. Of course “perfection” by its nature is not a realistic goal. The point is that we need to be continually striving to improve on the details of how we interact with the guitar. If we make “perfection” the target of our technique endeavors then our actual results will be far superior to those resulting from a vague goal like “doing the best I can”.

While doing our best is not a bad ideal, in practical application this kind of ambiguously defined goal leaves us a lot of room for actually not doing our best. If we measure doing our best solely by subjective criteria such as “this felt difficult so I must have been doing my best,” that is a well-intended but flawed yardstick by which to determine what is our best. Our best practice will result when we apply focused attention to the smallest details of our technique, measuring by objective criteria rather than by our perceptions of difficulty or success.

It is important to understand that people do not deliberately set out to practice in ways that are less than productive. Rather, focused concentration for extended periods is not our default mode of thinking, such that errors creep in just under our notice despite our general intent to “do our best”. So it is important to make a conscious effort to pay attention to the details!

Let us then look at some specific details of common technique flaws among students of guitar. Keep in mind, the goal of this discussion is constructive feedback toward the end of helping you to identify problems and correct them. Merely adopting the ideal that it is good to pay attention to detail will make no difference in your progress. You have to actually make the conscious effort to implement!

1 – Harsh Chord Changes: chord changes is one of toughest challenges for beginning guitar players. Just getting the fingers to work separately from one another at all is a full agenda. Once you get past this then the next step is to work on changing chords while keeping a rhythm pattern going. This is where the problem with attention to detail begins to show. Specifically, releasing tension on the last beat of the current chord in anticipation of the finger shifting for the next chord, such that the pick stroke yields a buzzy thud instead of a clear harmonious ringing. Most do not realize they are doing this until I point it out. Why? Because they have already shifted their focus off of the details of the current chord and onto the chord that has yet to happen. This is a perfect example of how lack of attention to detail results in undesirable sounds. If you want your chord rhythms to flow nicely so that they sound smooth then pay close attention to the last pick stroke of each chord and make sure you are retaining the fingering of the current chord until it is time to change. If this means you have to slow down to execute the chord change properly then do it. Speed up gradually as your muscle memory of the finger positioning allows it.

2 – Choppy Scales: for scales to sound their best we need to play them with no time lapse between notes. This requires consistent finger pressure on each note until the precise moment of the change to the next note, and then a coordinated execution between the fret hand finger and the pick stroke as we shift to the new note. One common problem I observe is releasing pressure on the current note just as soon as the note is made. The cause is the same as the chord changing issue … preoccupation with the note ahead to the detriment of the one currently ringing. It is critical to pay attention to keeping the current note “live” while maneuvering both hands to set up the next note. Another common problem is lack of precise coordination between the two hands such that the pick strikes the string either before or after the placement of the fret hand finger on the upcoming note. Again, both of these issues respond well to slowing down and paying attention to the details of your fingering and two hand synchronization, such that you execute notes well. Then after sufficient repetition to enforce the habits of hand, speed up gradually as your mastery allows while continuing to pay attention to these details.

3 – Bends and Vibrato: bending along with its cousin vibrato are the most powerful, expressive techniques we have as guitarists – when they are executed well. They are also among the most difficult things to master since they are entirely under your control, unlike simply fingering a single note or chord where you have the frets to help you with pitch accuracy. The common problems I see with bending and vibrato are picking the string after the bend has started, bending up to an out of tune pitch, and then releasing the bend to a pitch other than the original unbent note. Again, these all respond well to slowing down and paying attention to the start, peak, and trough of the bend, then repeating until accurate bends become a habit while continuing to monitor the accuracy of peaks and troughs. Then speed up as improvements in muscle memory permit.

4 – Pick Hold & Orientation for Single Notes: the pick should be located between the pad of the thumb and the side of the forefinger, and the wrist should be relaxed such that the pick makes roughly a 30-45 degree angle to the strings. Then play with the base of the hand parallel to the strings, with a sharp but relaxed bump of the wrist to make the pick stroke. While this is physiologically the easiest, most comfortable way to hold and maneuver the pick, we tend to bring a lot of hangover from our handwriting habits into picking. This results in all manner of difficulties, such as bringing the middle finger into the pick hold, trying to pick from the far side of the hand (as with writing), and all manner of wasteful sweeping and swooshing motions where the job requires only a straightforward 1/4 inch arc of the pick. These handwriting habits are hard to break, but it is possible, and essential for fast and accurate picking. While practicing scales, pay attention to these details and force your pick hand to comply until it becomes a habit.

5 – Pick Hold & Orientation for Strumming: the pick hold is the same as for single notes. However, the pick stroke for strumming should come from the elbow, with the pick making a straight line across the strings. For the best tone we need light contact with the strings and a fast moving pick coming from a controlled flick of the wrist. Common problems with strumming are locking the wrist and then plowing harshly through the strings, trying to make an arc from the wrist rather then the elbow, and playing an arch or angle rather than a straight line parallel to the strings. Pay attention to these details for a smooth, chime-y, shimmering tone from the strings while strumming.

6 – Excess Tension: this is a universal problem among beginner and even intermediate level guitarists. Playing with too much muscular power results in pressing fretted notes too hard, often bending them out of tune. A heavy handed pick attack results in notes and chords that sound harsh. Excessive muscular tension is an automatic nervous system response to physical challenge arising from our instinctive “fight or flight” mechanism. While this response is very useful when we encounter a bear in the woods, it is a disaster to our guitar technique. Playing guitar is a dance, not a fight. We must play with finesse, not power, if we want our guitars to yield up pleasing sounds in response to our manipulation. All of the problems above are at least partially a result of playing with excessive muscular tension. You can counter the fight or flight response with deliberate focused attention on the state of muscular tension in your hands, arms, and shoulders while practicing scales and chord rhythms. Make it a habit to play with as little muscular tension as possible.
Finally, be sure to practice as often as possible! Learning guitar is all about memory in terms of both mental recall and physical muscle control. Every day that you do not practice you lose a bit of recall and muscle memory. That is just the way the human machine functions and there is not much we can do about it. Therefore, it is best to practice every day. This is not feasible for many hobbyists. In this case, make it a point to practice more days than not … at least five days a week.
Pay attention to the details to ensure that your practice routine is leading to progress rather than frustration!


Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Nature vs. Nurture: The Secret to Overcoming Fatal Guitar Technique Flaws.

By Guitar Teacher Chad Crawford

After a couple of decades of teaching guitar and interacting with other teachers and many clients, I can make a number of predictions on what any aspiring guitarist will struggle with and how the various responses to these stumbling blocks will either help or hinder progress. The guitar is a challenging instrument, and there are any number of areas where one might encounter a temporary roadblock. Of these typical areas, there is one I have enumerated in my previous “Top Ten” article that stands out above all others as the number one barrier to progress: not following the instructions.

Allow me to clarify this concept since the phrase alone may seem too broad and actually contrary to your experience. I doubt you have ever openly refused to learn a particular chord, for example, or a basic scale pattern. This is not the sort of thing I mean when I suggest that a significant percentage of guitar students often stumble in implementing course recommendations. It is not a matter of people intentionally side-stepping the instructions. Rather it is that certain aspects of optimum physical technique run contrary to our instincts. Most students tackling a challenge in physical technique tend to unconsciously default back to instincts rather than consistently apply good technique recommendations. For the record, I am guilty of this as much as anyone, although I have improved significantly over the years in applying what the guitarist community has found to be the most effective technique development methods.

Now let me narrow this down to the specifics items that I see over and over. If any of these seem to apply to you, keep in mind that I am not writing about any specific person or experience, but rather my collective experience as a guitar student and teacher. I assure you that although some of these may apply to you, they are universal themes in the guitar community, so don’t feel like I’m singling you out to give you a hard time!

  1. Tickle the strings rather than tackle them.
  2. For playing open or bar chord rhythms, use a wide, fast, and light-contact pick stroke.
  3. For playing individual notes or two-string intervals (fifth chords, double stops) keep the pick hand palm turned into the guitar so that the pick moves parallel to the plane of the strings with a mere flick of the wrist.
  4. Apply no more pressure to the strings/frets than necessary to sound out a clear note.
  5. Avoid grasping the guitar neck with the palm and thumb as if it were a baseball bat.
  6. Use your elbow to change the working range of your pick – not your wrist or your shoulder.
  7. When changing to an upcoming chord, avoid chopping off the last beat of the previous chord by releasing pressure too early.
  8. Unless you are practicing certain exercises specifically intended to develop speed, do not practice at a tempo faster than you can play with good note articulation and two-hand synchronization.
  9. When learning a new rhythm pattern, go slow and consciously count the beats and divisions of the beats, rather than trying to play the rhythm by “feel”. Once you have conscious mastery of the pattern only then should you work on keeping time by feel.

If you have taken lessons with me for any length of time, you will know that I teach these things routinely, so you may wonder why I am taking up a Newsletter column with this routine lesson fare. There is a reason I am emphasizing these things for you: between knowing good technique and doing good technique, there is a subconscious barrier that we all struggle with: instinct. As your teacher, one of the most significant challenges I face in helping you develop your skills is your own instincts. Your basic instincts tend toward moving the fingers as a unit, favoring the index finger, using much more strength than is necessary, and handling the pick as if it is a plow. Your secondary instinct is to do just the opposite of this. For example, when attempting to play scales for the first time, you will note that your fingers want to stay together and mute the string you are trying to pick, so you will then pull your other fingers way back from the fretboard. Then you have to slam the next finger down like a dive bomber in order to stay in time on the next note. This causes subtle delays that cap your top speed at limits far below your potential.

The first step in conquering this barrier is to be aware of these instinctive actions and over-reactions, so that you can be ready to spot them and counter with deliberate focused repetition of a balanced, optimum technique method that cooperates as far as possible with your natural physiology. Then, apply focused attention to repetitions of good technique. Repetition of good technique results in habits, such that good technique becomes increasingly automatic, enabling to you to move between chords and notes accurately with little conscious effort. Here is where the process breaks down: the focused repetition of good technique, and namely, the focus part. Your hands will constantly try to resort back to instinctive positions and motions, even though your conscious mind is well aware of these issues. You must pay close attention to these details of technique when you practice. This can be tedious at times, but the pay off is more than worth the effort!


Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.